Breaking the Silence: 2020—2022

A major concern of CFSC’s in recent years has been the plight of children when their parents or caregivers are incarcerated. One way CFSC seeks to move this work forward is by using the United Nations as an avenue for advocacy and awareness-raising. Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. UN protocols include regular reviews of nations that have signed conventions, to assess their progress toward meeting the goals that the conventions lay out.

Looking ahead to the review of Canada, in 2019 CFSC hosted a unique Dialogue, a first-of-its-kind event, at Friends House in Toronto. The Dialogue brought together over 35 organizations and individuals from across Canada to discuss the often ignored and disturbing conditions facing children of incarcerated parents. Out of this Dialogue, we released the report Breaking the Silence: Dialogue on Children of Incarcerated Parents.

A year after the Dialogue had taken place, I was hired at CFSC. The pandemic arrived shortly thereafter. While it may have changed the work environment, it did not change CFSC’s strong commitment to the goal of advancing the rights and well-being of children and families impacted by incarceration.

In addition to the UN review of Canada’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we and our partners have advocated for children to be considered in federal legislation intending to reduce recidivism in Canada. (Recidivism means new crimes committed by people trying to reintegrate into their communities after incarceration. This often happens as the result of systemic discrimination and lack of supports and resources.)

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
Alternative reports to the official government report are a significant part of the UN review process around a country’s implementation of a Convention. Children, youth, and social justice organizations provide essential information and perspectives about the situation of children in Canada.

One of my first tasks when I joined CFSC was to write an Alternative Report for the UNCRC review process. This Report was submitted by CFSC to the UN review committee in 2020. Due to COVID-19, the review has been postponed ever since. Since 2020 we have been actively working in collaboration with the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. The Coalition coordinated reports and perspectives brought forward by over 30 civil society organizations. Collectively, our goal was to take advantage of the postponed review process to work together and push for more progress in Canada.

The Coalition has brought these groups together for several meetings, including one in which we presented our concerns directly to the Heritage Minister. Through this meeting, and other efforts, we advocated for a revised government report—one that would better represent civil society concerns. We also asked the Ministry to organize transparent conversations with children and youth before and after concluding observations are received.

The final review for Canada is now scheduled for May. We’re working with partners to strategize how best to raise public awareness and leverage these review sessions, and have submitted an update to our 2020 Alternative Report.

Working Group on the Federal Framework to Reduce Recidivism
CFSC is a member of the National Associations Active in Criminal Justice (NAACJ). The NAACJ brings together organizations from across the country that work with the Canadian criminal justice system, both from within and externally. The NAACJ has close connections to government and to Correctional Services Canada and provides channels of communication to advocate for changes.

Last year new federal law, the Reduction of Recidivism Framework Act, came into force. The Act instructs the Minister of Public Safety to “consult with a variety of Indigenous governing bodies” as well as “non-governmental, non-profit, faith-based and private sector organizations,” to develop and implement a federal framework to reduce recidivism.

The NAACJ established a working group of members interested in supporting and informing this new legislation. CFSC has been participating in this working group twice a month since August, 2021. We also took part in two afternoons of roundtable consultations with Public Safety Canada. The working group collaborated on a discussion paper to help shape the Federal Framework to Reduce Recidivism.

Through our influence, the paper includes strong statements about the needs of children with incarcerated parents. The Federal Framework to Reduce Recidivism is another opportunity for Canada to take a rights-based approach to improve conditions for children with incarcerated parents. The implementation of this new legislation will contribute to the perspective CFSC will bring to the UNCRC review.

The Canadian Coalition for Children of Incarcerated Parents
One key result of the Dialogue CFSC hosted in 2019 was participants being inspired to form the Canadian Coalition on Children with Incarcerated Parents. This Coalition helps organizations working with children impacted by familial incarceration to be more effective in their advocacy by coordinating their efforts. Having brought the organizations together in the first place, CFSC has been strongly committed to helping the Coalition build capacity and become more established.

The Coalition has developed a written mandate, vision, and formal terms of reference. Its Twitter account and website were launched in the fall.

The Coalition is making itself more visible through these measures, as well as public presentations and online social media campaigns. In February we facilitated a focus group and the premiere screening of the documentary Bonds that Hurt, Bonds that Heal. The film shares stories of lived experience to advocate for children with incarcerated parents.

The Coalition has many plans for 2022, including increasing access to information, promoting a child rights-based approach, counteracting the negative public discourse and stigma about criminalized people and their families, and elevating the voices of lived experience. There are also many opportunities within existing work to advance the rights and well-being of children with incarcerated parents.

CFSC is committed to promoting the use of best practices and resources for children of incarcerated parents at every stage of the criminal justice system. We are excited with how this work is developing, and look forward to sharing more in the months ahead!

Nancy Russell is CFSC’s Criminal Justice Program Coordinator.